September 23, 2011
I was having an amazing conversation with my daughter, Cameron, this weekend. We were discussing (what else?) possible colleges she might attend in the not so distant future. She admitted that even though many of the colleges on her list of “top 25” were “reach” schools, a part of her believed she would be accepted to any college she applied to, however Pollyannaish that belief might be. We laughed as I reminisced about the first time I took her to see The Nutcracker at age 3. Cameron had been taking ballet classes with a woman who was more concerned with teaching the girls in pink how to sneeze without spreading germs than any particular dance moves. Cameron loved the dance accoutrements that included pink shoes and a dance skirt. When she saw her first real ballet, she announced, “I want to be Clara.” She said it in a sincere, emphatic, yet totally innocent manner. She seemed to believe, “If I want it, it should come to me.” She has continued to be that way ever since, although now realizing the need to work very, very hard to make those dreams become real.
As we continued to share the delight of analyzing the details of her personality and experiences, we moved on to one of her first real disappointments…losing a bid for Student Council VP last year. Ever since 5th grade, she has been a Student Council officer, running for her chosen office and winning, running again, and winning again. When I heard of her defeat last year, my heart hurt and I worried about how she would take it. As is often the case, my body alerted me to what had happened and I almost felt as if the injury was mine. As we spoke of it this week she stated wisely, “You know, Mom, I was really disappointed, but I know it is important for me to learn how to lose. You know, to be able to accept not always succeeding, that can be tough for a person like me to face. I think I really needed that lesson.”
Where did this child come from? Had she read the cover of the New York Times Magazine the day before that announced the inclusion of an article entitled, “What if the secret to success is failure?” The author, Paul Tough (I did not make that up), describes educators focusing on students who exhibit ‘grit,’ which includes, “a passion for a single mission [combined with] an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take (p. 43).” Cameron clearly had grit, but what about me? How would I describe my dedication or even my willingness to name goals that might involve risk or be out of my reach?
That served as the beginning of many days of thinking about risk, perseverance, and willingness to accept failure. As in most areas of my life, I started my psychological digging by looking at examples connected to baking. Because, as we all know, baking can be a metaphor for any of life’s challenges, joys, or problems. I thought about how I tend to choose the recipes I bake each morning. While I will try something new, I rarely choose a recipe that would result in my failing. For many years I eschewed recipes that required me to make caramel that began by melting sugar. Too iffy, I thought, and my chances of burning the sugar were great. Use easier recipes that had a higher guarantee of success. No grit there. I also reflected on my desire to make real French macarons (well before bakeries selling macarons became ubiquitous), chocolate soufflés, and a cake roulade. I have tried each once, failed, and really never tried again. I voraciously read articles about how to make each of these elusive sweets, but am reluctant to risk failure again. Again, I find no grit.
I began to think of my life beyond baking, however small it may be. I had set some goals for myself that I pursued passionately until they were attained. When I was in the 8th grade I did a Social Studies project on becoming a psychologist. Fifteen years later, after completing high school, an undergraduate degree in psychology, a Master’s Degree, internship and Ph.D. all in psychology and marriage and family therapy, I reached my goal. OK, there was some grit! But did I take any risks? I couldn’t see it. While there were definitely challenges along the way, as I look back, the hard work had seemed to come easily to me. I was so passionate about what I was doing (and continue to be), that it barely seemed like work. Does that count?
Next I had to consider my current adult life. What are the real risks that I am faced with that I fear taking? There are many times that I fear admitting to myself (and others) exactly who I am and what I want. Have I ever told someone, who I thought might not share my feelings, “I’d like to be your friend”? Never. Have I ever really put myself and my feelings out in plain view for someone to see, particularly if they had the potential to change how I was viewed? Never. I live a very safe, predictable life, where I am much more likely to bake a recipe of Levain CopyCat Cookies than espresso macarons with ganache. Where is my grit? What am I afraid of? How did my daughter develop her wisdom and ability to take risks (despite her incredible fear) and I looked to protect myself in whatever way possible? What caused me to go from an idealistic 8th grader, willing to do anything to pursue my dreams, to someone who was daunted by the possibility of a roulade that would not properly roll, or my intense emotions that could overwhelm anyone who appeared in their path or let others know that I am not always as I seem? I see myself having the option to follow one of several paths to better understand this…run (to give me time to reflect on what I’m afraid of), bake (and take risks to try something unfamiliar, whatever the outcome), or talk (and let someone know how they are taking my breath away). What’s the worst that could happen?